REVIEW: Altered Carbon – Season 1 (Netflix)

Netflix get on the cyberpunk bandwagon with this Blade Runner-inflected sci-fi series. Richard gives it his blessing. 

I always remembered how odd and yet fitting it was that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction began with a definition. The film states that the second meaning of the word “pulp” is that of “a magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.” That definition continually came back to me while watching one of Netflix’s new original series, Altered Carbon, because here was a show which, at its core, is pulp sci-fi in the truest sense of the word.

The central concept here is that each person is installed with a “stack,” an insert in the upper spine which houses your consciousness. This stack or its code can then be changed between bodies which results in such varied scenarios as: murder victims being resurrected in new bodies, or “sleeves,” to give testimony; soldiers transporting almost instantly between planets by being sent into built-to-purpose bodies; and families renting sleeves from the local prison to house grandmas’ consciousness after her death for Dia De Los Muertos. This is not a show about technology arriving, this is a show about a technology which is already here and ingrained into the society we are seeing, from the top of the mansions above the clouds to the underground blood sport circuits. What gives Altered Carbon that pulpy flavor is how the concepts of its technology are presented most intriguingly at a street level. But rather than being shown on a canvas which is rough or unfinished, this series is quick to show off the kind of money and loving detail we’re lucky to get in sci-fi films, let alone shows! Unfortunately, some critics have been quick to claim that this gorgeous canvas only holds a superficial story.

In the year 2384, we find Takeshi Kovacs being brought back after 250 years locked away in a prison without a body. He was the last survivor of a rebellion group who fought the “Protectorate,” which runs the settled worlds. Kovacs, now running around in a new sleeve, is tasked by the ultra-wealthy Laurens Bancroft with solving his murder. While I would love to give more details about the story and the nature of this world, I feel that discovery is where the show truly excels. You see, by having Kovacs as a character with a clear operational understanding of the technology at play, and yet still somewhat caught in the spectacle of just how much this technology has changed, we get a chance to learn about this universe from the details and his interactions rather than just exposition.

The show reminds me most of HBO’s Westworld in that it’s a blend of genre work and sci-fi by grounding its central narrative in a noir-style detective story, voiceovers and all. Also reminiscent of Westworld is that this show lived up to the “lurid” aspect of the pulp label. There are some gorgeous people running around and you get to see quite a lot of them, but thankfully, pretty much every central actor is bringing more than just their birthday suit to the party. Kovacs is played primarily by Joel Kinnaman who for once actually does a really good job with the role, finding a nice place between badass and smartass. Martha Higareda as co-lead is pretty much a showstopper, bringing some serious emotional range to what could have been a one-note character. The cast gets pretty extensive, so I won’t mention everyone, but my personal favorite has got to be Chris Connor as Edgar Allen Poe. And no, I am not explaining anything about his presence, it’s just too good to spoil! Some real standouts come in the supporting cast who, due to the “body swapping” tech, sometimes play multiple roles with a special shoutout to Matt Biedel as Abuela – you will know him when you see him.

With such a high concept premise and looks, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling Altered Carbon should have been more. Yet I think that may have destroyed some of what the show was trying to achieve. By keeping the story relatable and the applications of the technology somewhat approachable, this works beautifully as a gateway into the world and all the varied levels of its society. What needs to happen now is for a season two to be greenlit so that the preparation and exploration is given the opportunity to payoff. The concept of the stacks and sleeves allows for the recasting of practically any role, and this is simply too good an opportunity to give up. Considering the original literary source material is a trilogy, we can only hope that Netflix decides that the show is worth the clearly not inconsiderable resources it took to make.

Some critics gave the show flack for being all style and no substance, and I’m going to disagree. The technology and its implications don’t always make sense, plotholes seem to pop up more than they probably should, and there are several moments more cool than cohesive. But for all that, few shows of recent times have so powerfully grabbed my attention or my imagination. Altered Carbon may be built on neon flash and sci-fi style, but I can see signs of serious substance… even if it is synthetic.

Richard Herring

Half-American, half-Norwegian. All Engineer, amateur filmmaker, former Scuba Diver, qualified Forklift Operator, continual Stand Up Comedian, and Certified Cinephile.

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